Date & Place: Monday 6 November, Wolfson Room, IHR, London
Speakers: Franziska Heimburger (Paris-Sorbonne), Marjorie Gehrhardt (University of Reading), Alison Fell (University of Leeds)
Paper Title: The First World War: Reflections on Scholarship and Commemoration 100 years on. Roundtable discussion
Chair: Ludivine Broch (Westminster)
2014-18 has been marked by celebrations of the centenary commemorations of the First World War, not least in France and Britain. We were thus delighted to host this ‘Wanel’ (Women-only panel, for those who don’t know the lingo) to discuss how far the history and memory of the Great War have come. Alison Fell (Leeds), Franziska Heimburger (Paris-Sorbonne) and Marjorie Gehrhardt (University of Reading) are exploring new avenues in their own historical research – from race to disability to language. Heimburger own work which involves updating a bibliography of First World War work published in the recent past reveals the stark rise in cultural approaches to the Great War, a sign of how the field has changed so significantly. Moreover, all were engaged in numerous projects which show the relevance of studying and commemorating the Great War in the early 21st century. Through various projects conducted with their local communities and institutions, Fell and Gehrhardt reflected on the link between history, impact and the general public. Indeed, their experiences have been generally very positive as new esearch has been dessimated; but it has also revealed the historian’s sometimes awkward place in contemporary society. Does a focus on racial diversity or facial disfiguration in the First World War risk heroising colonial and disfigured soldiers, rather than revealing their nuanced and complicated experiences? Are we stuck in a rhetoric of either victims or heroes?
The importance of historical research to maintain a balanced and nuanced approach becomes even more key as history is adapted to public and political discourses. Indeed, the scandals which Heimburger described in France around First World War memory show the ease with which history has become a political tool during this centenary. But there is no doubt, if you listen to this talk, that the centenary has, if not generated then accompanied, a wave of exciting new scholars, scholarship and reflection.